Marketing 101 PROMOTE YOUR MEETING DEPARTMENT When an executive in a division of your company halfway across the country has a meeting to plan, does she call you? Or is her assistant on the phone accepting rack rates? Mergers mean insurance companies have increasingly become networks of divisions and subsidiaries from coast to coast. Your department should be the meeting link. And it's up to you to spread that message.

"We have to sell ourselves," says Kelly Stratton, consulting manager, meeting services, Nationwide Insurance Enterprise, in Columbus, Ohio. Stratton's goal for the first half of 1999 is to get the Meeting Services department's name out. Among the tactics she's using is meeting with the controllers of the companies within the Nationwide family, showing them how much money her team's negotiating has saved the company--and how those controllers can tap into those savings. "My best story isn't about convenience, professionalism, or experience," she says. "When I talk about money, their eyes light up."

Other elements of Stratton's promotional plan: * A blast e-mail to 150 assistants asking, "Are you overwhelmed with meetings? Call us." So far she's received six responses.

* Ads in the five corporate newsletters.

* Messages on video screens throughout Nationwide offices.

* Promotional items such as mouse pads, highlighters, and letter openers with the Meeting Services phone number and the suggestion, "Let us do your next meeting."

* Invitations to lunchtime seminars, where representatives of the meeting department and Nationwide's travel agency will give presentations on effective meeting planning.

* A site on the company's intranet, which includes a meeting request form.

At ever-growing Conseco in Carmel, Ind., Linda Bourbonnie, president of Conseco Travel Services, the insurer's travel agency subsidiary, has created a brochure describing the agency's services and listing its clients. The brochure is included in a binder handed out when Bourbonnie's staff does travel orientation meetings. Held monthly, the two-hour sessions are generally attended by about 20 people and are promoted in the company's weekly newsletter and at the Conseco Travel Services area on the corporate intranet. Bourbonnie also recently went on the road, visiting some subsidiaries, reviewing their travel and meeting purchasing practices in 1998, and suggesting ways that Conseco Travel Services might help them in 1999.

Custom Shows a guitar--and the gift of gab For 18 years he was a guitar-playing "riverboat gambler" on the Empress Lilly at Walt Disney World. Now Denny Zavett is becoming a fixture at insurance meetings. "We get requests: 'Is Denny going to be there?'" says Ed Coover, senior vice president, individual marketing at National Travelers Life in Des Moines. "His style is very personal, very interactive. He'll roam around the room with his guitar, carrying on his banter."

At States West Life Insurance, Bonnie Flynn, conference coordinator, booked Zavett sight unseen last year. "He was there for the whole trip. At each function he performed. He fit right in."

Zavett sends a questionnaire to companies that book him, asking about the meeting objectives and the corporate culture. "Some are conservative and some like to let it rip a little bit," says Zavett, who tailors his stage show to match.

Better Business Travel LITTLE AIRLINES THAT COULD With the cost of business fares reaching new heights, some companies are taking innovative steps to bring ticket prices back down to earth. Nearly a year ago in Detroit, the General Motors and DaimlerChrysler corporations named start-up company ProAir their preferred carrier to four cities in exchange for guaranteed prices. In the second half of 1998 alone, the deal saved Daimler Chrysler $2 million.

GM and DaimlerChrysler employees traveling on business to Baltimore, Indianapolis, Newark, or Philadelphia fly on ProAir out of the Detroit City Airport for a flat monthly fee that is guaranteed for the next four years. The auto companies' suppliers also can take advantage of the arrangement, and employees' families can fly to any of ProAir's 10 destinations on a stand-by basis for $25 per flight segment.

According to industry experts and company leaders involved in the deal, the first year of the five-year agreement, which includes an option to extend it for another five years, has been a high-flying success. Eric Steinwinder, ProAir vice president of marketing, says, "As a start-up airline, you need to come up with something that breaks away from the traditional. This is completely revolutionary in terms of business air travel."

The deal boosted ProAir's credibility and allowed it to grow from two 737s flying from Detroit City Airport to four cities when it began in July 1997 to a fleet of four planes serving 10 cities today. ProAir is negotiating similar contracts with a number of other companies.

Charles Braswell, director of general services for DaimlerChrysler, says from June to December, 300 to 500 employees a month flew Pro Air instead of the major airlines, saving the company $2 million. "We think that's excellent," he says.

Braswell believes other corporations and airlines will follow their lead. "I don't think this will be the only deal that will be struck," he says.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Lafayette Hill, Pa., which lobbies on behalf of companies and travelers seeking lower airfares, says many corporations have discount agreements with airlines, but there are no price guarantees and the pricing structure hasn't been simplified. "What's extraordinary about ProAir is corporations intervening on the supply side of the market," Mitchell says. "It's a quantum leap forward."

Other atypical examples of corporate involvement in the supply side of the airline industry are cropping up across the country. In Des Moines, numerous Midwest companies, including Principal Financial Group, Amerus Life Insurance Co., and Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance, teamed up to invest in fledgling carrier AccessAir in an attempt to lower fares and spur economic development.

When AccessAir took flight in February, it offered flights from Des Moines, Moline, and Peoria to New York and Los Angeles at less than half the cost of major carriers. Within two days, the major airlines dropped their ticket prices to compete. In its first week, AccessAir averaged $100,000 a day in sales and already was selling out flights. "We're very pleased with that," says Rick Schnoes, assistant director of financial reporting at Principal. He anticipates significant savings in travel costs and employee travel time, because, unlike the other carriers, AccessAir has direct flights to both coasts.

AccessAir's vice president of sales and promotions, Bruno Scaldaferri, says his company is on track to add planes and destinations, and he credits his local investors for the airline's success.

ProAir's Steinwinder sees small start-ups as scaling the fortresses built by major carriers for the benefit of businesses and consumers. His airline hasn't just saved money for GM and Daimler Chrysler. It's paid off for everyone. Before ProAir opened, a walk-up ticket from Detroit to Baltimore on Northwest was $1,147. By February, customers could buy tickets for $205 from ProAir or $208 from Northwest. "You've got to have someone willing to stand up and say, 'Competition is good,'" Steinwinder says. --Lauren Wiley

MPI Conference FACE TO FACE IS HERE TO STAY Meeting Professionals International's Professional Education Conference, held in late January in Vancouver, B.C., is a perfect example of how in-person meetings can never be replaced by technology. A technology education track and a live Webcast of the opening and closing sessions showed just how important technology has become to the meeting industry, but the experience of the record-breaking 2,185 attendees mingling, networking, learning, and being inspired--not only by dozens of excellent speakers and presenters but by the awesome beauty of the British Columbian coastline--could hardly be replicated online.

The conference theme, A Whole New Ballgame, was underscored by the association's commitment to technology and how it can enhance meetings. MPI announced business alliances with several technology partners: PlanSoft Corporation, Fusion Productions, broadcast. com, and Eastman Kodak Company.

PlanSoft Corporation, creators of the PlanSoft Network (an online database of 5,000 hotels, convention bureaus, and related services worldwide) and Ajenis software (software that will provide a direct link between planners and hotels for communicating every phase of planning), has a private labeling agreement with MPI, called TechEdge, in which visitors to MPI's Web site have immediate access to the PlanSoft database, which can be searched in a number of ways.

Many of the hotels on the PlanSoft Network offer complete panoramic photos of meeting rooms, guest rooms, and public spaces; and complete floor plans of each meeting room. Hotels that are members of MPI and purchase the enhanced service receive a discount from PlanSoft. In addition, each hotel member of MPI will receive a special icon designating that membership.

Fusion Productions, the Webster, N.Y.-based production/event company and creator of MPI's Web site (www. mpi.org), is offering MPI members discounts on other Web-related services, including Web site development.

MPI also announced that Eastman Kodak Company will provide MPI's 16,000-plus members worldwide with its digital imaging technologies, products, and services. And Kodak will use MPI members as a focus group to develop new products for meetings and presentations.

Finally, MPI has an exclusive partnership with broadcast.com, a Web site that did live broadcasts of highlights of the MPI opening session. The arrangement also offers MPI members a 10 percent discount on live and archived meetings designed for the Internet or reproduced and broadcast live.